Read Time: 19 minutes
Renowned design pioneer, artist, author and educator, Edwin Schlossberg, of ESI Design, an NBBJ studio, gives a glimpse into why he provokes and invites us to have and design more meaningful shared experiences.
In place of the SEGD’s annual conference and awards celebration planned for earlier in the month, the association hosted a virtual version of the SEGD Achievement Awards ceremony on June 24, 2020. During the online event, 2020 SEGD Fellow Edwin Schlossberg, Principal at ESI Design, an NBBJ studio, took his place in the canon of SEGD Fellows alongside 41 other experiential graphic design laureates and luminaries including Paula Scher, Jane Davis Doggett, Massimo Vignelli, Lance Wyman, Wayne Hunt, Robert Venturi, and David Gibson.
An internationally recognized multi-hyphenate pioneer in audience engagement, Schlossberg launched his design career in 1977 with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, one of the world’s first interactive museums, and has been operating at the forefront of innovative experiential design ever since. Under his leadership, ESI Design (New York) has created groundbreaking corporate and retail spaces, sales and innovation centers, museums, digital media installations and multi-player game environments for an array of companies, brands and cultural institutions, including Sony, eBay, WarnerMedia, PNC Bank, Barclays, Beacon Capital Partners, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate.
Schlossberg holds a Ph.D. in Science and Literature from Columbia University and is an accomplished fine artist, educator and author as well. His artwork has been celebrated and shown since the 1960s and can be found in numerous museums and private collections. Sharing his knowledge has been important to Schlossberg; he has taught and lectured around the world, from the School of Visual Arts (New York) to Keio University (Tokyo) and has written many articles and books, including “Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-first Century.”
In 2004, Schlossberg won the National Arts Club Medal of Honor. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and in 2011 was appointed by President Obama to serve a four-year term on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
Even over a sobering medium like Zoom, Schlossberg presents as an icon clothed in a humble white turtleneck—a man whose exceptional intellect is (mercifully) patient, and who emits an aura of refined cool. He and his work are beloved by his employees, designers, artists and at least one former U.S. President.
He’s a design fan, too. Schlossberg speaks highly of thought leaders like Shigeru Ban and the late Keith Godard, of Debbie Millman, Steven Heller‚ and 18th-century philosopher Denis Diderot. Inconceivably, given the previous statement, he has the occasional uninspired moment like the rest of us, “Some days you don’t have anything to talk about, and sometimes you do, and it’s the way it is.”
When you speak with him, it’s readily apparent that Schlossberg is deeply concerned with the human experience on all levels, maybe so much so he forgets himself, but never at the cost of his sense of wonder or hope. “I had no idea I was going into a profession. I just thought I had to figure out the best way to make something happen,” he admits. Thankfully, he’s still making things happen and slowing down is not part of future plans for himself.
“I’m excited and very honored to be part of it.” Schlossberg spoke simply and sincerely of the community of experiential graphic design professionals. “Looking back, it all seems like it was meant to be, but it has never felt that way. It’s always been, ‘Really? Are we going to do this? This is amazing.’”
We are, and it is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in design and how did your upbringing or your background support or indirectly set you on your professional path?
I was born in 1945, a little bit before the end of the war to parents who worked in the textile industry. My mother was a bookkeeper and father eventually owned his own textile firm where he designed the fabrics. When I was young, my grandmother used to take my hands and say, these are the hands of a surgeon; the idea of the importance of education and making things happen was always present for me.
I went to both Birch Wathen [Lenox School] and PS166 for elementary school; I found the contrasting experience between attending private and public schools beneficial, as I did the experience of going to summer camp—a place called Robinson Crusoe—in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The whole idea of the camp was collaborative composition, really. It was a group of kids making, doing, and building things together.
And, I loved it. People like Pete Seeger and other relatively famous singers who were definitely left leaning, came once a week for a campfire. I was hearing lefty songs, and ‘We Shall Overcome’ when I was nine years old; I think that had an impact on me. So, the idea of making things to me always was making things with people.
After I was too old to go as a camper, I was a counselor in training. The last summer I was at the camp, I befriended a counselor named Suzi Gablik—a painter, collagist and an amazing person. When I arrived back in New York at Columbia [University], Suzi invited me over to her house. At dinner were her two best friends: Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In that moment, this idea of living as an artist— seeing that someone could actually spend their day thinking and making things—dramatically affected me.
A couple of years later, their friend group, which included John Cage and Merce Cunningham organized a charity event where one of the speakers was Bucky Fuller. I was completely blown away.
I went to the after party, and to my amazement, he [Buckminster Fuller] was there. As we sat around talking for hours, something clicked in my head: I could combine the things I was interested in and thinking about regarding global issues, interdisciplinary work and Robinson Crusoe.
I’m still fascinated by trying to solve problems that make people have better experiences. I don’t know why, but I am. That’s the path.
There were a lot of intellectuals in New York in the 60s and 70s—what do you think drew you into this singularly impressive group?
I met so many other people, many of whom were as, if not more astonishing, but, perhaps in less public ways. This was a time when there were pickets and strikes at Columbia, marches in Washington. It was a very yeasty time of making things and doing things.
I don’t look at myself from the outside and I think that that’s probably a gift. I’m never trying to figure out why people are interested in what I’m doing, I’m just too interested in what they’re doing.
In addition to the fantastic professors I was working with at Columbia, I was lucky to be surrounded by interesting people. Bucky was an astonishing character and our talks led to heady experiences like editing his book on Synergetics and running his “World Game” in 1969.
Life is always about the people that you meet and interact with. And, I think that good design—the design that our office has been doing for the last 43 years—is about our team working together.
About that, how did ESI Design begin?
After [Ph.D.] graduation, a friend of mine asked me to help organize an education event in Washington D.C., where I met Lloyd Hezekiah, the director of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum who invited me in and I became the exhibit designer for the new museum.
That allowed me to explore the whole of creating places in which the experience of collaborative work could happen. Getting to do the Brooklyn Children’s Museum was an incredible gift. It took seven years, a lot of research and a variety of experts to create a completely interactive museum, where there were no exhibits, only experiences.
Seven years felt like a lifetime for me, so I did a lot of other things in the meantime—making, writing books and variety of things. Then, when [the museum] opened, opportunities started falling in line. I had invitations to design a museum for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Sesame Street. So, then I had to start a company because my father told me that I might get sued and I needed to protect myself.
That seems like very fatherly advice. What next?
ES: That was it for the museum. Then, I had to hire people.
What do you look for when hiring?
The people that interest me the most are the people who are fantastic team builders and teammates, and who can orchestrate dramatic results using various skills. I’m less interested in the labels of professions than the skill sets that are required to translate physical materials and ideas into experiences. I would say all the people who work at ESI have become good in several disciplines.
If you had to ascribe a label: would it be multi, inter or, anti-disciplinary?
The ‘discipline’ thing does mean the idea of structured activity and kind of rigidity. I like the ‘inter’ word, because between is one of my favorite prepositions. But I’d rather be ‘between disciplines’ than ‘interdisciplinary.’
What advice do you give students or young designers?
Learn. Become as expert as you possibly can at two or three things, make sure that you know how to work in a team—and—know how to describe what you’re good at to other people.
When I teach and talk to students, the thing I suggest is that they figure out what member of a team they want to be and what they want that team to be doing. This is what they should think about rather than a label of a skill.
Speaking of students, let’s go back to Columbia for a moment—specifically, your education is probably singular in our field.
You mean getting a combined doctorate in science and English and American literature is not common? [chuckles]
You have no degree in design or visual art, which is unusual. How has the intersection of science and literature informed or benefited you in your career in art and design?
Well, there’s a lot to say about that.
For me, learning about how people frame things they feel, and think is a critical piece of the ability to communicate, so that someone is inspired or interested or afraid, or whatever is the goal. In your social life, the ability to create a non-physical picture of something that you’re really interested in, is really important; that was the literature piece. But, at the same time, if you don’t understand and describe how the world works physically, it’s very hard to advance what you want someone to learn.
So, I felt like the two subjects actually were very interdependent. It was quite a struggle to get an agreement with Columbia to give me a master’s and a doctorate in in both Physics and English and American literature, but it was worth it. I wrote my thesis as an imaginary conversation between Einstein and Beckett.
I love the fact that design is composed of ‘de-‘ and ‘sign.’ [The prefix ‘de’] means to take away, and sign means to describe, not identify. The idea of removing the ‘sign’ of something, meaning making something dynamic rather than static is very ironic to me, because people often look at the static part of [design] as being the evidence of it, rather than the experience of what it produces in and with people.
My favorite description of art is what Gertrude Stein said, ‘All art is irritation.’ I think that’s exactly how I feel about it, it’s irritation in the sense of disruption and encouragement. I think that’s why I keep doing both [art and design] because both of them are, for me, very complimentary.
Who and/or what have influenced your artwork?
Some of the artists who inspire me are: Bill Viola, Jennifer Bartlett, James Rosenquist, James Turrell, Doug Aitken, Ai Weiwei, Nick Grimshaw, Robert Morris, and Olafur Eliasson.
The thing that was so interesting to me about painters I met when I was in my early twenties, was that they didn’t expect it to look like what people had thought art was. They expected it to provoke an experience. People like Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper [Johns] whose work is so enthralling because the reaction is the action.
The images or materials make for a conversation and provoke anger or fear or excitement or love. We only have a finite number of moments to receive stimulus. So, it’s really so exciting to try to think about something that can provoke irritation to the point you stop thinking about whatever you were before you saw it.
What role does materiality play in your art and your design work, and is it different or is it the same?
It’s very different. The design work is always collaborative in its creation, and the artwork is always my own making.
What are your fixations as an artist?
My obsession is with things that continue to be dynamic, produce dynamic feelings, experiences. My effort always is to make something that is never still. Something that is living is always moving; I’ve been trying to make art, make objects, that seem to continuously move, both in your cognitive mind and also in the sensory parts of your mind.
So, would you say that’s the continuity over time between your artwork—the ability to have an evolving conversation?
Right. It’s the same reason why I wanted to do my doctorate in physics and literature. I wanted to use words and images and experiences altogether.
It’s always that.
Back to the other way you use words and images: What projects are you most proud of and what projects have altered the course of your design career?
Well, I’ll answer the last one first, which is every single project. If you’ve looked at our project list, you couldn’t think that one project was like the next one. I think that that’s very healthy—I’m very proud of that. We have no style except the style of trying to make an experience.
The nice thing about [experiential] projects is you go and see them on one day and they look completely different than on another, and it’s because of the ways that people interact with them. There are always surprises.
At the Macomber Farm project I did a really long time ago, one of the key inventions was a sort of mask that you look through that enables you to see the way a horse or cow or chicken sees the world. The reason that’s so important is that you don’t need any symbolic interface to understand what you can get out of the experience.
You just put the device on, and immediately you remember all the times you’ve seen a horse and that they drop their head a certain way. They whinny. They do all these things, and you understand that a lot of it is because of the way they see. No one has to tell you about it, you just have it because you observed it and knew it—that’s very satisfying.
To me, achieving the goal of a non-symbolic interface was an incredible mind-blowing moment. Our whole office is trying to do that in every project, every day. That’s the thing we think is the killer application.
So, the non-symbolic interface is a key metric, what other indicators do you use to measure excellence in experiential design?
One of those ways [you know a] design works is when people feel that they became more important because of it. I take that as a measuring tool for any of our experiences.
We need this level of seriousness and purpose in design, where what you’re trying to do is enhance the experience of someone rather than perfect an object. The objects don’t matter. What matters is the quality of the experience that people have with one.
On the outside of the sight masks [at Macomber Farm] it says, ‘I’m seeing like a chicken.’ Well, that makes the person who’s watching you have a laugh or at least a smile. Getting a response and feeling a sense of invitation into an experience is what I perceive to be the value.
Please, tell us more about how the audience or end user informs your process.
Well, I think that we always start from what we would like people to be doing. What’s the emotional impact? What are the things where you leave out? People are always interested in what’s left out of something and so they always gravitate towards that.
In other words, the ‘negative space’ of an environment we design is the intersection between the people and the place. To fill that with invitations to participate with one another is the goal.
It’s nice if they learn something specific, but the most important thing is for people to discover something they couldn’t have without interacting with others. It’s a collaborative insight rather than an individual insight.
For example, the cool thing about [the concept of] liberty is that everyone on earth has a different idea about what it means—and no one’s right. How do you make a museum experience from that? Well, the only way you can do it is making it so that people can see that everyone else in the room has a different idea about liberty than they do.
That’s what we did at the Statue of Liberty Museum. It’s something you couldn’t do without the support of lots of displays and computing power and a variety of other things. That being said, technology is just a two-by-four. It’s just a means.
What ‘two-by-fours’ are you most excited about right now?
Quantum computing is the thing that will enable so many more amazing tools because it will be invisible, [there will be] no delay, no hesitation—answers to questions faster than you can ask them. It will be the engine for much faster analysis of problems, much faster analysis of disease, much faster analysis of traffic, for food manufacturers, everything.
That sort of speed is going to allow you to spend more time watching the leaves flutter.
What has been challenging and/or rewarding about your leadership role at ESI Design?
The most rewarding thing is the caliber of people that work with me. I mean, just an amazing group of people. Today, we’re 60 astonishingly talented, skilled people in the company, and I’m proud to say our team is comprised of almost 75 percent women—a huge change from 20 years ago. I’ve also had the gift of spectacular people who manage the financial operational side of the company.
One of our remarkable designers, Emily Webster, asked me, ‘How did you know that the work would keep coming in?’ I said, ‘I didn’t. I mean, I just didn’t.’
Keeping a business going for 43 years, I suppose, really is an accomplishment. But I just was busy doing it; I wasn’t counting.
We recently merged with architectural firm NBBJ; one of their specialties as a firm is designing medical and other scientific facilities. We have never worked in those spaces, so it’s an exciting new chapter for everyone, especially at this moment in time when hospitals must reinvent themselves.
Can you share any lessons from that business transition?
Making sure that the people you’re going to work with are as ethical and as caring and as interested in the world that you are, is the essence of the deal. Nothing else.
That’s what I’ve learned. We made a really good choice, and so did they.
On that note, your firm’s reputation as a meritorious employer precedes it.
The only way I know how to work with people is to respect and reward them for trying their hardest by paying people as much as I possibly can and making sure they have a very good life-work balance. It’s also ensuring participation in the success of projects and that clients see all the people who worked on their projects, not just the front people.
15 years ago, you said ‘The greatest future includes most of us becoming more fully human at no one’s burden. Seeing others as the joy of life not its threat of loss is the greatest future.’
How does the next generation of experiential designers build the future?
It’s always the young adults of a culture that set the tone for the next generation. Things can change quickly when young people refuse to put up with something.
For me, collaborative insight becomes a requisite quality of design for where we are collectively are right now, which is nearly eight billion people and struggling to abandon destructive social hierarchies based on the color of one’s skin or the place of one’s birth, for example.
We need to think about how well we can work with other people as our basic measure of humanity, rather than individual performance. Martin Luther King Jr. described this as society judging by the content of a person’s character.
That’s the job right now; we need to rid the world of these hierarchies. Designers have to be creating experiences which demonstrate the individual and collective burdens of hate—that communities and leadership that collaborate hate are incredibly destructive and bring out the worst in everyone—and support an enlightened alternative.
This is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for things to get worse or start getting better.
And I think it will get better; I don’t think the opposite is possible.
Accolades for Edwin Schlossberg, FSEGD
“Ed Schlossberg always seems to be ahead of the curve. I recall visiting the original Sony Wonder in the 90s and being blown away by the use of technology to communicate concepts. I thought, ‘wow, that’s where we’re going in interpretive spaces.’ I was right and so was Ed.” —Wayne Hunt, FSEGD, SEGD President 1999-2000 and Principal, Hunt Design
“I am proud of Ed [Schlossberg] and all of the folks at ESI Design who took up the difficult task of writing and communicating our shared story [at the Statue of Liberty Museum]… They have done a very fine job of it. The space is beautiful, thought provoking, and welcoming to all of our fellow citizens—of our country and of our world.” —Barack Obama, President 2008-2016, United States of America
“When we first started Leviathan, our team consistently looked to the work of Ed and his firm ESI Design, both because it was captivating and beautiful, as well as the fact that there weren’t many other firms melding digital and architectural design quite like they were then. Ed was and is truly a pioneer in that space. Fast forward to today, the landscape is more crowded with those firms, but he and ESI Design continue to stand out for their excellence.” —Chad Hutson, current SEGD Board Member, and Co-founder and President, Leviathan
“As the incoming CEO for SEGD, I was excited to see that Ed Schlossberg had been selected to receive our 2020 SEGD Fellow Award. As an exhibit designer for over 30 years, I have always admired Ed’s design leadership and work because he was grounded in interdisciplinary collaboration with deliberate focus on how the end user engages through interactivity and the integration of digital experiences.” —Cybelle Jones, CEO, SEGD
”Ed has been a pioneer in experiential design since I first met him some 25 years ago. His vision, leadership and discovery of inventive solutions through collaboration have provided unique solutions to numerous complex problems. SEGD rightfully recognizes his contributions by naming him a Fellow. Congratulations Ed.” —John Berry, FSEGD, SEGD President 1975-1977
“I didn’t know Ed Schlossberg. I knew OF Ed Schlossberg. That alone speaks volumes about his work and his contributions to the field of EGD.” —David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD and Principal, Entro/CVEDesign
>> Edwin Schlossberg’s Bio
>> Edwin Schlossberg’s Artwork
>> ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio
>> Meet more of SEGD’s distinguished SEGD Fellows
>> For more content in your areas of interest, discover SEGD’s Xplore index!
All photos courtesy of ESI Design, an NBBJ studio